Accompaniment: The Missing Piece in Church Life

Last week I discussed the need for accompaniment. By God’s design we all need ongoing accompaniment throughout our life. In return, we are all called to make a gift of ourselves in accompanying others. That need that has always been there in the human heart has only multiplied as we watch healthy family life unravel before our eyes.

Marriage and family life are a privileged context for accompaniment. How beautiful it is when husband and wife are truly present to each other, united intimately as one flesh within the marriage covenant. How beautiful it is when that love is extended fruitfully into the lives of their children. The blessings can be even greater when extended family live in close proximity with each other, and are able to provide ongoing mutual support. The past few centuries introduced new pressures that placed a great strain on marriage and family life: emigration to new lands, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, massive worldwide wars (and their aftermath in family life), the sexual revolution, the rise of the internet, the rise of the smart phone – I could go on and on.

I am NOT arguing in favor of turning back the clock. Not all these changes are bad, and you certainly can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. I am just pointing out the present painful reality: very few children are growing up in a context of a happy marriage and a healthy family. That means that the need for accompaniment is even more painfully felt.

I know that some of you pine for “the good old days” and wonder why so many things keep changing. I find that most parishes today contain all the classic signs of a grieving process: denial, anger, blame, and bargaining. Unfortunately, many stay stuck.

There is cause to grieve. Whatever your views are about the changes of the last few centuries, I hope that we can all agree that marriage and family life are seriously struggling. It’s a devastating loss. Whenever there is a grave loss, the healthy human response is to grieve and to mourn. The prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. Yes, it’s normal to experience denial – to pretend like it’s really not all that bad. It’s normal to experience anger – looking for a scapegoat. It’s normal to engage in bargaining and fantasize falsely “if only…If only…” Yet in the end we need to grieve and lament.

Once again God’s house lies in ruins. We need not lose hope. He will raise up children of Abraham from her very stones, will turn those children into living stones, and will rebuild his Church. Whatever that renewal looks like, one thing is certain: Those God calls to be part of that rebuilding will need to be accompanied and to accompany.

The need for accompaniment in parish life today is glaring. Just in my two parishes, I am aware of hundreds of individuals who are suffering deeply for lack of accompaniment: the sick, the aging, the dying, the lonely, the afflicted, the addicted, widows, widowers, abused children, neglected children, anxious adolescents, overwhelmed young adults, and exhausted caregivers.

I have met many a spouse who is beyond burnt out after years of trying to hold it together with a struggling spouse. They are trying to do all the accompanying themselves – not asking for help or knowing how to ask for help, and forgetting their own need of accompaniment.

The same risk is enormous for us priests. In Catholic parish life, people instinctively turn to the priest whenever there is a need for accompaniment that family cannot meet. Most of us have skills in that area and enjoy doing it. But we are fools if we think we can accompany every hurting person we meet – especially now that family life has largely broken down. I’ve been learning to teach other people how to accompany rather than try to do it all myself. That is actually how Jesus did it. He spent most of his time accompanying a chose twelve from among his disciples.

Most people today will NOT find themselves sufficiently accompanied by their own families. They will need to find support from other Christians – from the whole faith community, not just a few ordained ministers. This is how it was in the apostolic Church, and it is how it needs to be today. By God’s design, the Church is meant to be the living Body of Christ, in which we all receive and give love in communion with God and with each other.

When I ponder the enormous need for accompaniment in Church life today, three images come to my heart: (1) a missing puzzle piece; (2) a breach in our defenses; and (3) a blockage in our arteries.

Accompaniment is like a puzzle piece that is missing. For example, I have met many good Catholics who are struggling painfully with habits of sin or addictions. They try and try to break free. They pray hard, go to Confession, fast, or put filters on their phones. They might do well for a while, but they keep falling. All too often are trying to fight the battle alone. They do not know how to let themselves be walked with by a group of companions. Things really start changing when we seek and find that communal support!

The lack of accompaniment today is like a breach in our defenses. The devil is a bully who doesn’t fight fair. He loves to attack us when we are weakest and most vulnerable. He divides and conquers, thriving when we are isolated and alone and in the shadows. But if we are well-accompanied, loved, encouraged, understood, affirmed, strengthened, and held accountable, we can resist the devil, and he will indeed take to flight. He is powerless against the communal love of the Body of Christ.

The lack of accompaniment is like a blockage in our arteries. The love of the Body of Christ is meant by God to flow in and flow out of us, freely received and freely given, circulating to all the members and making us fully alive in Him. When we do not know how to receive, we find ourselves incapable of giving in any meaningful way. When we selfishly resist giving, we become stifled and sterile.

It is time for us to accept the hard truth. Marriage and family life largely lie in ruins. Many parish institutions lie in ruins. There is no going back to some golden age (if there ever was one); the only path is forward. We may for a time battle with the usual denial and bargaining and anger. We certainly need to lament and shed tears. But if we are serious about the rebuilding, we need to learn the lessons of accompaniment that Jesus taught to his disciples.

The Need for Accompaniment

Accompaniment is perhaps the single greatest need in the Church today. With it, amazing growth and renewal happens. Without it, Christendom crumbles and collapses before our eyes.

Unfortunately, “accompaniment” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords can be confusing and unhelpful. So we need to be clear about what we mean by accompaniment in the life of Christ and his Church.

To be accompanied means that someone commits to us in a relationship that shows love and compassion to us in our need. To be accompanied likely involves one or more of the following: to be seen, noticed, heard, understood, loved, delighted in, celebrated, encouraged, included, affirmed, cared for, walked with, nurtured, fed, sheltered, protected, defended, touched in a meaningful way, comforted, calmed, soothed, taught, guided, counseled, corrected, chastised, or even disciplined. When I am accompanied, I experience at a profound level that I matter, that I am not alone, that I am known and loved, that I am safe and secure, that I belong to a reality larger than myself, and that all will be well. I feel free to be truly myself, without having to pretend or put on a mask. I experience an openness and eagerness for all that is true and good and beautiful.

We are familiar with figures in life who provide this kind of accompaniment: mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, nurses, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and clergy. Or, perhaps we should say that these people can provide these things. Sometimes they do the opposite by using or abusing, controlling or manipulating, neglecting or ignoring.

We live in an age very much like that of the early Church, an age in which the greatness of the Roman empire was fading fast, an age in which marriage and family life had broken down. Jesus urges his disciples to look around them and notice that the fields in the world are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). They have just stumbled upon his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It turns out that the world is full of people like her, people with a deep hunger and thirst, people with a need to be accompanied. Jesus offered her that accompaniment: noticing her, seeing her, understanding her, caring for her, awakening her thirst, and inviting her to embrace the truth. The disciples arrive and ask Jesus about lunch. He explains to them that his food is in doing his Father’s will. He depends upon his Father. He needs to be accompanied by his Father.

This is the first and most important lesson of accompaniment: We all need to be accompanied. This is not simply a need we have as children; it is a human need by God’s design. We are made in his image and likeness. God is love. He is not a solitary God. He is an eternal communion of persons. The call from God is to share in his eternal life, in that eternal communion of love – a far cry from isolation and independence. Certainly, good parents help us to become strong and free and responsible – but hopefully still in a way that knows how to depend upon God and depend upon others. Love of God and love of neighbor are the two great commandments. Love is mutual, not one-sided. If we are not receiving love in a vulnerable way, we have not yet learned how to love.

We begin life utterly vulnerable and dependent,  looking to our primary caregivers, not only for food and clothing and shelter, but for all the other emotional and spiritual needs mentioned above. In God’s plan, these caregivers are a mother and father blessed and united by God in a stable and lifelong covenant of marriage. These days, it is exceptional indeed to find an environment in which mom and dad are intimate friends of God and secure in their covenantal love for each other. In far too many cases these blessings are lacking altogether, or they are only a well-maintained façade, masking misery and dysfunction.  No wonder there is such a gaping need for accompaniment! The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Here in the United States, there are a couple of added challenges. First, there is the false sense of “independence” – which easily becomes an ungodly self-reliance. Is our nation not built upon rugged individualism? We’re just supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, suck it up, and make it happen. That seems to work so well – until it doesn’t, and life collapses on us. That certainly happened to me – a story for another time.

Secondly, there are many in my generation who became “latchkey children” or “lost children.” Parenting books, from Spock to Ferber, positively encouraged moms and dads to raise “independent” children, to leave even babies alone in their sadness and fear so that they could learn how to “self-soothe” (as if this is something anyone can teach himself!). In other cases, circumstances forced children to be on their own, whether due to divorce or due to dual-paycheck households. When not consistently accompanied through childhood, children certainly learn to be independent – but not necessarily capable of receiving and giving love in a joyful and healthy way.  Many of us graduated to becoming lonely and isolated adults, uncertain how to form healthy relationships. Many more of my peers have emerged as the legendary “helicopter parents” of this generation, fueled by fear, and swooping in to rescue their kids from any real risk or responsibility (or freedom or growth). We are perhaps even more accurately described as “Zamboni parents” or “bulldozer parents.” Still unhealed and insecure from our own lack of accompaniment, and still unable or unwilling to admit our need for it, we are determined that our children will never face danger or risk alone – or at all.

Genuine accompaniment is all about gradualness – aiding someone, step-by-step, to become truly strong and free, capable of receiving and giving in authentic human love. Genuine accompaniment fully respects freedom, nurtures growth, and invites to greater responsibility. Most of us tend to one of two extremes. Either we meddle and micro-manage, or we stay aloof and inconsistent.

Genuine accompaniment is an art – these days, a rare art. I find that those who are best at it are those who themselves have received it – and who are committed to continue receiving it. Think of Jesus, who received accompaniment for the first 30 years of his life – and even then was regularly pulling aside from the crowds to reconnect with his Father in prayer. Jesus never ran from being vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us avoid being vulnerable and do not like to admit that we “need” at a such a deep human level. Receiving is perhaps the hardest human thing to do. If we do not learn to, we wind up grasping or seizing, using or taking, controlling or manipulating.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The lack of accompaniment today is a true crisis. Until each of us learns how to receive the accompaniment we need, we won’t know how to give it. Our members will keep drifting elsewhere in their ache for accompaniment. We lament that our young families are turning instead to athletics, or to yoga, or to social media. Don’t they know what they are missing by leaving the Church? True, none of those other things will fill the void they are experiencing. They are turning there because they find some version of accompaniment. When will we allow ourselves to learn and to begin turning our parishes into places where authentic Christian accompaniment happens – starting with ourselves? I know that if and when we do, the growth will be every bit as explosive as it was in the early Church. The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

In my last post, I described our human tendency to impose silent expectations on others, rather than asking for what we desire or need. That behavior works well enough for everyday interactions. It becomes irrational or foolish when we are expecting others to make our pain go away or to fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart.

I mentioned the book Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They identify seven universal human longings: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They also offer the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem” is often just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention. If ignored long enough, it will advance with unstoppable momentum.

As I read their book, I felt the scales falling from my eyes. I now recognize that I was sometimes unwittingly placing expectations on others and that I was letting others place them on me. I realized that I often felt anxious or unsafe, rejected or shameful, alone or misunderstood. It was not other people’s fault that I felt those things. It was okay that I felt those things. I was not trapped. I was not doomed to feel those things forever. I could do something about it. My heavenly Father, my Blessed Mother Mary, and my true friends were there, if only I would ask for help. Not everyone can help me all the time.

In fact, it is much more appropriate that they do not. It is so important for us ordained ministers to have a strong support network outside of the communities we serve. That allows us the freedom of heart to love and serve the people in front of us.

After years of downplaying my emotional and spiritual pain, I began seeking and receiving additional support in facing my wounds of fear, shame, rejection, and abandonment. One of my friends and I have been on a similar journey, and regularly encourage each other to stay on the path of healing. It’s tempting to turn aside! He and I like to quip, “The problem with facing painful emotions is that they’re painful.” It is no surprise that many of us prefer to avoid them.

I totally relate to the analogy offered by Sister Miriam Heidland in her book Loved as I Am. She describes the numbness we feel in winter if we come indoors with frostbite. Following the numbness comes an excruciating pain – which is a step in the right direction – and finally the recovery of normal sensation in our appendages. Like little children, we often need to be encouraged that coming in from the cold is good for us, and that the unbearable pain is only temporary.

Jesus modeled for us a willingness to depend upon others, to ask for and receive what he needed. The Gospels describe how frequently he withdrew to abide with his Father, and how he radically depended upon his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus humbly asked his friends to spend an hour with him in prayer – perhaps knowing that they might not give him what he asked for. Imitating his Father, he respected their freedom. He was secure in his identity as God’s beloved Son and had full confidence that his real needs would still be provided for.

Above all else, Jesus modeled true freedom for us. I yearn to imitate that freedom: “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). He offered himself freely as the spotless Lamb of God, but he never played the victim card.

I must admit that I still find it challenging to let my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no” (cf. Matthew 5:37). I sometimes find myself saying “yes” grudgingly, and then needing to battle through resentment or self-pity. I sometimes experience irrational guilt or shame when I say “no” – even when my “no” is for very good reasons. Instead of a simple “yes” or “no” I often feel the need to justify myself.  My heart is a work in progress.

In my lack of full freedom, I can see that I am still struggling with unreasonable expectations – sometimes with those that others try to impose on me, but especially with the unreasonable expectations that I place on myself.

I’ve learned to listen attentively to my heart and lips, guarding against those words, “I have to…” In truth, I never “have to” do anything. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. There is always a choice. God always respects our freedom. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at the prodigal son. The Father allowed them to go their way. He allowed them to learn from the consequences of their choices. He never “makes” us do anything. We are always free.

I have to” is a lie. Often we believe it because we are avoiding a conflict or running from a challenging situation. Other times we tell ourselves “I have to” because we somehow believe that our self-worth will be diminished if we don’t fulfill this expectation of the other person. That’s a lie. We remain God’s sons and daughters; his Fatherly love never changes. When we can believe the full truth about who we are as God’s beloved children, then we can break free from the prison of fear. We can shake off the shackles of unreasonable expectations and begin freely giving and freely receiving, abiding in authentic human love.

Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 1 of 2)

Expectations are part of the human experience. Travelers expect their hotel room to be clean. Store owners expect the customers to pay for their purchases. Children expect their parents to feed them, calm them, and protect them. Spouses bring all kinds of expectations into their marriage relationship – some realistic and others impossible.

I have come to appreciate just how omnipresent expectations are. Much like the force of gravity, we tend to take expectations as a given without much reflection.

But unconscious or unspoken expectations can be explosions waiting to go off. Many workplaces experience preventable conflict as a result of not having accurate or realistic job descriptions. Many a marital fight erupts because husband and wife are bringing different expectations to a situation. Many a peer suddenly feels a flood of self-pity or resentment or loneliness because others didn’t magically pick up on their subtle hints or unspoken cues. I suspect that many of the racial and cultural tensions in our nation and in our world are also due to mismatched and miscommunicated expectations.

Not all expectations are equal. There are everyday expectations that help govern healthy human interaction: exchanges of goods and services, classroom rules, household tasks, driving etiquette, and so forth. Even in those legitimate instances, it usually helps to communicate the expectations verbally or in writing. Then there are our stronger expectations, the ones that tend to fester and fume. That is because they are propelled by a much deeper drive from within the human heart: our core human desires and our emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. When ignored, these (fundamentally good) desires and needs become unruly, even destructive forces.

We tend to be out of touch with what we are really feeling and with what our heart most deeply desires. Indeed, in God’s design, we only discover these personal truths in communion with Him and others. We are mysteries unto ourselves and need healthy relationships to be fully human.

Healthy relationships include communication, asking, receiving, and giving. The healthiest and holiest people I know have learned how to communicate with God and others about what they feel, what they truly need, and what they truly desire. They have learned to be vulnerable and trusting. They humbly ask for what they need rather than taking, manipulating, or silently expecting.

But are we attuned to our emotions, our desires, our needs? I know that I have not always been. Even though I was a man of prayer for many years, I tended not to pay attention to my emotional and spiritual health. Indeed, I spent much of my life brushing aside any sense of “emotional needs” as selfish psychobabble.

I was merely following the script that I learned long ago. As a child, I internalized certain distorted beliefs about myself: that my emotions could be put on the shelf indefinitely, that they didn’t really matter. I could just tough it out and life would go on. My job was to pull it together, to work harder, and to figure out a better solution. To most outside observers, my life was one “success” after another, so this plan seemed to be working fine – until it didn’t. I finally reached a painful awareness that I could not manage, could not cope, and could not figure things out by myself.

In my childhood home, we had one massive omnipresent expectation – at all costs we had to keep my stepdad from blowing up. Whatever feelings or spiritual needs that I had in those moments had to wait – some of them many years. When I finally became more in tune with them (with the help of God, the Virgin Mary, and certain wonderful friends) I was stunned at what powerful and deep currents were swirling in the depths of my heart. I have been learning to reach out and meekly ask the appropriate people for help and support. The more I do so, the more free I am to love and serve with an undivided heart in my calling as a shepherd of souls.

One book that has been life-changing for me is Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They make the claim that every human heart has certain universal desires: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. If we feel a void in one or more of those desires, we can easily start placing expectations on others, and harbor blame if they fall short of those expectations. In truth, it is unreasonable to expect others to fulfill our own deepest longings. But we will slide into that behavior if we feel empty on the inside.

It struck me that Jesus and Mary themselves, the New Adam and the New Eve, experienced these seven human desires no less than we did. Indeed, God willed that they be fulfilled in those desires. Not everyone understood Jesus or blessed him or chose him – but certain key people did, not to mention God Himself. In the Gospels, Jesus and Mary were both unabashed in asking for and receiving help from others. They depended radically and constantly on the Father in all things. So there was in them no taking or grasping or striving for the needs of their heart. They freely asked and freely received. In the same true freedom, they gave everything on Good Friday.

I am still learning how to be free like them. More on that point next time.

To be continued…